The State is a Battlefield

The importance of tenant power and the class composition of the Connecticut legislature.

by Stephen Poland

Electing tenants to the state legislature must be a strategic part of the movement to build tenant power in the state of Connecticut.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of electoral politics, and this is not a call for electoral campaigns to be the core or priority of tenant organizing and housing justice work. However, this year’s successful campaign to win a Right to Counsel for Evictions made it clear to organizers not only that the over-representation of landlords in the state legislature is a serious obstacle to systemic change, but that there are real openings for contesting landlord power in the law-making body as a strategic site of class struggle.1

The Right to Counsel campaign was an organizing-led project driven by the Central Connecticut Democratic Socialists of America to pass statewide legislation guaranteeing the right to legal representation for any tenant facing eviction. Throughout the campaign, we heard legislators time and time again address Right to Counsel by speaking about their personal experiences as landlords. 

This did not directly determine whether an elected official supported or opposed the Right to Counsel bill—both Housing Committee Co-chairs Rep. Brandon McGee and Sen. Rick Lopes are landlords, yet spoke in favor of Right to Counsel and helped the bill get passed. However, it was a consistent source of frustration that even Democratic supporters of the Right to Counsel bill were mainly concerned with hypothetical cases in which mythical “mom & pop landlords” may have less than desirable outcomes due to the fact that their tenants would be guaranteed legal recourse when threatened with the loss of their home.

Democratic landlord-legislators sympathetic with the abstract notions of “equity” and “housing justice” found it far easier to imagine the pain and sadness landlords supposedly feel when they “have to” evict someone than to maintain focus on the actual experiences of the more than 93% of tenants who face eviction without legal counsel to guide them through the process, negotiate on their behalf, and fight for them in housing court. No elected officials ever spoke publicly about a personal experience going through eviction as a tenant—whether their own, or that of a family or community member. 

If this is the case with Democratic landlord-legislators generally supportive of Right to Counsel, one can imagine how much more comically extreme the rhetoric was from Republicans, for whom valuing private property over human lives and communities is a core governing principle. It’s worth quoting Senator Paul Cicarella’s speech on the floor of the Connecticut Senate in opposition to Right to Counsel at length, lightly edited for clarity and with key phrases emphasized:

You know, this really does the opposite of balanc[ing] the scales of justice, you know, the state is literally going to pick a side and help one citizen over another. And I just think that that’s a slippery slope. And again, I can’t reiterate that it’s at the worst time for the small landlords. I remember I bought my first property and I was 21 years old. Instead of buying a car, I bought a multifamily house. And I had to put every dollar into it just to get it and I put all of my sweat equity into that property. 

And I remember I inherited a tenant, a small child on the second floor, and I wanted to really have this property completely empty. But the person I bought the property from said, “Can you let them stay, I have a small child in school to middle the school year [sic].” And I did. And I had to get an attorney to help me evict somebody for multiple reasons. And it wasn’t just lack of payment.

And I found out how expensive it is for a [landlord] to hire an attorney in housing court. Not to mention hourly rate. But if anybody’s ever been in housing court, it takes a long time to see a mediator or get in front of a judge. So in that process, it opened my eyes to say I’m getting punished for allowing somebody to stay in this unit. And not only am I not getting paid the rent, but I’m going to have to pay an attorney $350 an hour to sit around for a majority of the day waiting to see a mediator. 

And I did not have the money at the time. I put every dollar I had into this property and I had to borrow money from my parents who also didn’t have the money to be paying for an attorney in a situation like this, me, [a] young guy trying to get ahead. And it opened my eyes to sometimes the cost[s] that are unrealized. And this right here is going to extend that same burden onto a lot of landlords.

Several parts of Cicarella’s speech are noteworthy because they are common to landlord arguments against Right to Counsel across the country. If we understand the law as a power relation that is contestable, it’s important to map out how the class composition of the legislature shapes the contours of contestation.

First, Cicarella claims a Right to Counsel for tenants would tilt the balance of power unfairly against landlords. The refrain of “poor, maligned landlords” is not only a distraction from the fact that over 80% of landlords have attorneys in eviction cases while less than 7% of tenants do, but a false equivalence between the rights of tenants and the rights of landlords. We need to be crystal clear: everyone has a right to housing, but no one has a right to an investment property

Second, Cicarella’s belief in his right to an investment property is clearly indicated by the generational wealth he felt entitled him to buy a multifamily house at age 21. This reliance on generational wealth comes up again when he mentions borrowing money from his parents to pay for an attorney in order to evict a tenant. Right to Counsel is precisely about the state guaranteeing legal counsel to those who have neither the generational wealth nor the private property leverage to defend themselves when threatened with the loss of their home. And this reproduction of generational wealth through investment properties is at the center of why eviction is a racial justice issue, an LGBTQ+ justice issue, a disability justice issue, and a public health issue

Third, Cicarella’s language that he “inherited a tenant, a small child on the second floor” offers a glimpse into the dehumanizing view landlords have of tenants due to the fundamental nature of investment properties, and the commodification of housing more generally. For landlords, investment properties are primarily vehicles of wealth accumulation, not homes for people, families, and communities.

While the value of a rental property for the tenant is its “use-value” as a safe space to live, for the landlords the value of the rental property is its “exchange-value” as a commodity for speculation and market exchange. It’s not surprising Cicarella refers to a human child as a thing he “inherited,” because for him the multi-family home he purchased as a “young guy trying to get ahead” is primarily a financial investment, and the tenants only matter as a function of the property through the wages from their jobs that are extracted by the landlord in the form of rent.

It’s therefore also no mystery why Cicarella would describe having to legally prove his case for evicting a tenant as “getting punished,” since he believes his sovereign power over his private property exceeds any rights of the rent-serfs to protection under the law. It’s not for nothing that we still use the old feudal language of landlords

Making the state legislature a site of contestation will require not just electing individuals into office who can govern from their experiences as tenants, but building the collective tenant power necessary to incorporate electoral politics as a strategic piece of a larger struggle to truly guarantee housing for all. As India Walton recently stated after winning Buffalo’s Democratic mayoral primary, “From the very start, I said, this is not about making India Walton mayor of Buffalo; this is about building the infrastructure to challenge every damn seat!” The importance of this conception of electoral work cannot be overstated: our position-taking and radical ideas mean absolutely nothing if we are not identifying the specific cracks of opportunity in the system and building the movements capable of leveraging them open. 

The disparities of power between landlords and tenants are inscribed at every level of the system, and the fact that over 80% of landlords have attorneys in eviction cases while less than 7% of tenants do is a disparity that is mirrored in the class composition of our state legislature. In multiple Connecticut cities, more than 70% of the population is renters, but nearly all of the elected representatives are landlords.

Four of these cities—Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford, and New Haven—are in the top 100 cities with the highest eviction rates in the country. This could be said to be about representation: we rightfully demand equal representation when it comes to race, gender, and sexuality, so why wouldn’t we demand equal representation when it comes to class and property relations? But the language of representation retains an elite theory of power in which we are merely demanding that those in power grant more seats to tenants; what we must do is make power itself contestable

We have to understand that the landlord class is organized around their property, and they understand the importance of the state as a battlefield. We have to match that, and exceed it. This is not an issue of advocacy, disruption, or critique, but organized class power. What would it take to elect multiple tenants to the state legislature who come from and are accountable to an organized movement, and what contestations of power might that make possible? What would it mean to have tenants with experiences of not only eviction and landlord harassment but also organizing and winning fights through collective action in the state legislature proposing bills, serving on committees, and speaking on the floor to contest the law as a power relation?

Challenging the class composition of the state legislature would mean challenging the power players who shape our reality in a domain we’ve largely ceded to lobbyists, aspirational schmoozers, and technocrats. The time has come for us to blow that open and forge a new reality, while remembering that reality is only malleable insofar as we have a detailed and highly pragmatic understanding of the contours of the terrain of struggle.

1. This quote from Ruth Wilson Gilmore is both a key influence on and a concise summary of my understanding of the state in this article: “[T]he state is a contradictory object and subject of struggle. We should be wary of fetishizing the state. Fascists fetishize the state for a whole set of purposes; and anti-fascists tend to fetishize the state as well. The state does not think and do. People in various configurations of power (including from below) enliven states to think and do.” (via The Funambulist)

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